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Product Testing in Virtual Worlds

As we talk to marketers tasked with innovation, we’ve been hearing a lot about the desire to “fail faster to succeed sooner” – in other words, testing new product concepts quickly and cheaply, typically through drawings or rapid prototypes that are easily shared with consumers.

But another avenue for concept testing is presented by the emerging importance of virtual worlds. Consider: 80 percent of active Internet users and Fortune 500 enterprises will participate in virtual worlds by the end of 2011, according to industry data.  The virtual world is dominated by two types of immersive environments: (1) role-playing games such as World of Warcraft  and (2) social communities such as Second Life.  So far, virtual world marketing has taken place mainly in the latter.

The crucial advantages to market testing in virtual worlds are the low cost of designing 3-D products and access to real-time feedback. Drawbacks include privacy and security concerns and design tools that may be too crude for representing some product ideas (like aircraft engines). Nonetheless, many entrepreneurs insist that the prototyping possibilities and ease of collaboration it offers just aren’t available anywhere else.

Businesses are using virtual worlds to build products they couldn’t otherwise afford to prototype. And some entrepreneurs are using Second Life or other virtual worlds to test ideas—such as a mass transit system with individual pods for riders—that aren’t feasible to prototype any other way. Other companies, including Disney, MTV, and Coca-Cola, have created their own virtual worlds.

So how can companies attract customers to try their product concepts in virtual worlds? Experts tend to agree on a few approaches:

  • Providing value for customers: In order to get customers’ attention in virtual worlds, marketers have to provide them with value. One commonly used way of providing value is to give free product samples. As a successful example, Nissan has a gigantic dispenser in Second Life that gives away free virtual Nissan cars, which then can be raced around a virtual track.
  • Offering highly interactive applications: Unsurprisingly, interaction is seen as an important element of virtual world marketing because in so doing, customers can be engaged by the company’s representatives, products, or other customers. One company that got it right is Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which tested a new hotel concept called Aloft. After a trial in Second Life, Starwood decided to put more seating in the lobby and install radios in the shower, among other changes.
  • Managing the community: Probably the most significant flaw in the typical approach is failing to understand the community you are trying to engage with. Virtual worlds are platforms for social networks. To foster integration into these communities, successful companies are hiring people who already live, work, and play in Second Life to act as advisors and work in the company’s virtual locations. Other companies are enhancing social interaction within the community by arranging events for the community or offering meaningful locations for interaction.

In virtual worlds, as in the real world, companies need to invest in creating beneficial long-term customer experiences. If done correctly, these worlds offer a whole new opportunity to test product concepts.

Have you had success testing product concepts in virtual worlds? Any lessons you can share?

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